Keenly aware of a looming bait shortage, Friendship lobsterman Chad Benner decided last fall to invest $15,000 to buy the custom-made net needed to join Maine’s growing menhaden fishery in 2020.

He planned to use some of the menhaden, also called pogy, to bait his lobster traps and sell the remainder to lobster fishermen on the hunt for an affordable alternative to Atlantic herring, which is hard to come by since its depleted numbers triggered steep cuts in how much herring can be caught.

But Benner’s plan was put in jeopardy last month when Maine announced that it wanted to place a two-year freeze on the menhaden fishery, closing it to newcomers while the state enacted a licensing system and made a pitch for a bigger share of the East Coast menhaden quota.

“I put my money down back in November, and now they are saying I can’t go fishing?” Benner said on Tuesday to state lawmakers who oversee the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “I’ve got a kid to support, and a family. I won’t even be able to sell (the net) because nobody could get a license.”

Stories of those who had hoped to jump into menhaden fishing, and pleas from lobstermen in search of affordable bait, persuaded state lawmakers to keep the menhaden fishery open while the state works out details of its proposed licensing system.

That is bad news for big operators who specialize in menhaden such as Vincent Balzano of Saco, a third-generation fisherman. An open fishery makes it harder for any one fisherman to earn a living, he said.

“If you choose to allow more and more people in, I’m going to ask one simple question: Where are the fish going to come from to allow people to have economically sustainable businesses?” Balzano said. “You’ve created the ultimate derby. It breaks all the rules of supply and demand.”

A legislative committee voted in favor of the Department of Marine Resources’ menhaden licensing bill, but only after deleting a section of the bill that would have set a “control date” for the menhaden fishery. A control date is a cutoff date that can be used to decide who is eligible to fish.

The department already had backed off its plan to close the menhaden fishery in 2020, saying it wouldn’t have had enough time to establish a licensing system in the time it had left before the fishery usually opens in June.

But anyone who had not obtained a generic state fishing permit and reported landings in 2017, 2018 or 2019 still would have been vulnerable to getting kicked out of the fishery in the future, at least until lawmakers intervened and deleted that part of the bill.

“I do not support control dates or ‘last one in, first one out’ fisheries management,” said Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, who is also a lobsterman. “It is my position that if you have a license and have invested in the fishery you should be treated the same as any other license holder.”

The bill approved by the committee would create a two-tiered licensing system: one for those who catch and sell menhaden, and one for personal use, such as lobstermen fishing for their bait. If the bill becomes law, regulators expect to limit the personal-use catch to three barrels a day.

Menhaden provide an important alternative source of bait for lobster traps when herring isn’t available. They are an important food for whales, larger fish and seabirds. They’re also harvested commercially for use in fish oil. They are now at record high numbers, especially in New England.

A sharp cut in the herring quota spurred huge growth in the menhaden fleet in 2019, with 50 new boats rushing to net Maine’s 2.4 million-pound state quota as well as part of New England’s shared quota to satisfy the $485 million lobster industry’s need for bait.


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